BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Doonesbury, the comic strip, is 40 years old. Big deal, Dennis the Menace is nearly 60, Blondie is 80, the Katzenjammer Kids are 113. So what makes Doonesbury so special? Well, for one thing, the characters age. They don't go through their paces in a frozen world. They live in a world in flux, and they reflect the evolving concerns, the battered sensibilities of baby boomers and their children. Doonesbury’s 40th anniversary is being marked with the publication of two huge books, one by cartoonist Brian Walker and the other compiled by the author of the comic strip himself, Garry Trudeau. It’s called 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, and it takes its readers on a journey of its characters’ lives from their inception in a campus newspaper at Yale in 1970 to the ever-changing now. It’s syndicated in some 1400 newspapers but it’s unlikely to be passed down to other artists like the other strips I mentioned. If Doonesbury is to remain true to itself, it can only be created by Garry Trudeau and it will have to end when he does. Garry Trudeau, welcome to On the Media.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Thank you so much. What a sad thought.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It will never end, and neither will you.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I don't think it'll be a legacy strip, I mean, some of those strips that have gone on through four or five artists. And actually the second and third artists sometimes improve the strip, but I think mine will go with me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Legend has it that the name Doonesbury stems from the word “doon,” a kind of slang for well-meaning fool, and the surname of your college roommate at Yale, Charles Pillsbury. In fact, a lot of Doonesbury’s characters are based on people you knew there - or Walden College [LAUGHS], as you sort of renamed it. Do all of your characters have roots embedded in reality?
GARRY TRUDEAU: Generally speaking, the characters start with an inspiration, with a person that I may have in mind or some combination of people I may have known. Whatever it was that drew me to them in the first place often doesn't necessarily make for a good story so, I mean, they're admirable people and I almost routinely turn them into totally reprehensible people.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] This is the great compliment I pay the people I love. But even when it’s a direct parody, as the Duke character was of Hunter Thompson, it’s only a starting point. Initially he was, for all intents and purposes, the character that Hunter Thompson had created in Fear and Loathing books, very –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The wild renegade, hard drinking -
GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah, gonzo -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - gonzo journalist. And Hunter Thompson apparently wasn't so crazy about the character of Duke.
GARRY TRUDEAU: So I've heard. I, I've never actually met him, but I think he found it copyright infringement. I don’t know if he quite got the concept of parody. I think he, he created this character of himself, and he felt he shouldn't even be commented on, that it was owned and operated by Hunter S. Thompson.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it fair to say that Doonesbury was really developed around three foundational characters, Mike Doonesbury, the everyman, and B.D., the football quarterback, and the campus radical, Mark Slackmeyer?
GARRY TRUDEAU: That was the original architecture of the strip. My editor said, you need to hit those different points on the political spectrum, and so it was this three-legged stool that we originally set up. Over time, the cast just grew and grew. I kept adding to it. And it’s kind of a sprawling group now.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] There’s over 70 characters. And it’s demanding for longtime readers and it’s really unfair for new readers [BROOKE LAUGHS] because it’s like opening Tolstoy in the middle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How have the events in your own life informed the lives of the characters in Doonesbury?
GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I think that’s unavoidable but through most of my life had a pretty bright line between my work life and my home life. I have colleagues who do family strips who, you know, take notes at home. I never did. There are bits and pieces, obviously, that make their way into the strip but it’s never conscious. When I go to work I start with the subject and then I cast it and then I do the individual strips, often out of order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you'd come up with an idea and then you cast the story from your selection of characters in order to bring out the point you’re making?
GARRY TRUDEAU: Right. And there’s some sense of trying to keep certain narrative arcs in rotation. There’s half a dozen storylines that are now active.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think that anybody who was reading the strip at its inception would not have expected what you've done with B.D.; that that character, the one who represented more the right leg of the political and cultural spectrum and that three-legged stool that you mentioned would become such a sharp focus.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, that again was the subject driving the choice of character. Doonesbury was originally a sports strip. It was a parody of the exploits of a remarkable young athlete named Brian Dowling, who was the quarterback of my college football team and rather charismatic, and as an individual was very self-effacing and modest and everything that B.D., the character that was a parody of him, was not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so there he is, a fairly shallow guy, and as he moves through his life he always wears a helmet. He switches football teams, he becomes a National Guardsman, a highway patrolman, then a soldier.
GARRY TRUDEAU: And finally he loses his helmet as a result of the wound that he receives on the battlefield in Fallujah, and in the same panel the reveal shows that he’s missing a leg as well. And for many readers, both events were equally moving because losing the helmet signified that everything was different for B.D., that his life was going to change dramatically. And it represented a commitment to a storyline that was much longer than any I've ever accepted in the past for myself. The whole point of it was to show what kinds of sacrifices our countrymen were making in our name over in Iraq at that time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about how you did that and why you did that, because here is where your real life and the lives of your characters, if they don't merge, they really richly inform each other. You've done a lot of traveling to the war zones. You have also spent a lot, a lot of time at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
GARRY TRUDEAU: The day that B.D. was wounded, the DOD got in touch and said, we see what you’re doing, we see where you’re going with this. And the subtext, I've always thought, was, it might be better if you got it right. So they invited me to Walter Reed, and subsequently made my way downstream to the vet centers and tried to [SIGHS] show what that journey is like for somebody who’s wounded and who also has invisible wounds. That was not my original intention. I didn't mean to give B.D. PTSD. I was just concerned with the physical wound. But that was another journey he was on. And then he meets another character who comes into the vet center, the female character who’s suffering from something called MST, Military Sexual Trauma. See, that was my entry point in discussing a terrible subject called command rape. And this was Melissa’s story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, I mean, this is basically what makes Doonesbury so unusual. It is reportage. It’s political commitment with narrative. So how did you decide what kind of artist you would be, and was there anyone outside who helped you make that decision?
GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I had a professor when I was in college – and I came into it feeling that this was a course I was going to ace. You know, in my teenage years I'd been the art jock. I was the art nerd. And so I was pretty happy with the drawings I was doing in that class, and yet they were sort of the visual equivalent of Muzak. You know, they were sort of charcoal stylings and they were very facile. And one day the professor came over and he looked at my drawing, and he ripped it off my drawing board and proceeded to tear it into pieces in front of the rest of the class. And he looked at me, he said, yes, I know you can draw. What I'd really like to know is whether you can see. And so, that was a very early lesson in paying attention. And what I've tried to be through my career is a good noticer and a good listener. And I have to listen to it. I have to pick up the music of it. I have to pick up the sense of different situations and characters. It’s not something that I do when I'm not deliberately doing it. The rest of the time I just go on and live my life [LAUGHING] like anyone else. I have artist friends who are not like that at all, that you take their art away from them and it’s like removing oxygen from the room. They just, you know, wither up. They can't handle the absence of stimulation that art provides them. I'm not quite like that. I need time away from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which you took in abundance -
GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - in the '80s.
GARRY TRUDEAU: [LAUGHS] I took 20 months off to work in the theater, yeah, which was my first great passion and I -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really, the theater.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah. I really -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not just run off to the circus?
GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I did a Broadway show and then I did an Off-Broadway show which continued on, various versions of it, after I came back. So I was able to indulge those early interests. I mean, I went out to Kansas City at the conclusion of my first contract, which was 12 years, and everyone was upset with me and they said, well, this has never been done before. You can't take a sabbatical from a comic strip. Comic strips are public utilities. They go, you know, 365.
[LAUGHTER] There’s no stopping. And I said, well, you know, I've been lucky and I've been fortunate enough to have this success. What’s the point if I can't leverage it to do some other things that I'm interested in?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You are saying that you have these friends who without the art it’s like the oxygen has been sucked out of the room, and that’s not how you are. A lot of writers that I know say that sometimes their characters just take over and they have to sit back and let them. You've said, no, you cast your strips with the characters. I just wonder if you ever let them off the leash.
GARRY TRUDEAU: [LAUGHS] I'm not sure what that means. I mean, I feel like I'm dragging them into it [BROOKE LAUGHS] every day. I don't feel like they're pulling me along. I mean, yes, there are times where as you’re writing the character seems to reveal himself or herself in certain ways. You – oh, that’s a really interesting direction to take them. And because I'm always on a very, very tight deadline – I have a weekly deadline on the strip – I will get ideas sometimes that are quite far ahead of where I actually was with the character. But there’s no time to discard a good idea, so I'll write that strip and then I'll have to reverse engineer it to get there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You ran into a terrible deadline problem during the Nixon administration.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Yes. In those days I was working three or four weeks ahead, and the problem was that the central news event, Watergate, was unrolling, and so rapidly, and there were all kinds of wonderful stories [LAUGHS] that were breaking every day, and we would be overtaken by them. But the most significant one was a whole week of strips I'd done on Nixon’s aide, John Ehrlichman, and Ehrlichman had resigned about a day after we had shipped a week on him.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] In fact, when we – it was in the mails. I mean, this wasn't just a question of pulling back an electronic file.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in Doonesbury he’s still in office.
GARRY TRUDEAU: He’s still in office. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And that wasn't going to work, so we had to call them back in, put in a substitute week. That’s when we said, okay, we can't be three weeks out. Let's try two weeks out. Let's try one week out. And -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ehrlichman said he was sorry, didn't he?
GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah, he sent me [BROOKE LAUGHS] a letter of apology [LAUGHTER] for his bad timing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s nothing that defines a journalist more than deadlines. We all know that if Dennis the Menace came a week or two or 30 years late we wouldn't really notice. We would notice keenly if that happened with Doonesbury. And so I guess it made sense to everybody when the strip moved to so many editorial pages.
GARRY TRUDEAU: It made sense to everybody but the syndicate and myself because we know how newspapers are read, and there’s a great many more readers on the comics page than on the editorial page. So while it had some cache to be on the editorial page or the Op-Ed page, in balance it was a terrible idea. And we did a lot of jawboning. We really tried to talk editors out of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Doonesbury has a very vibrant audience on Slate. It is still fundamentally a creature of the newspaper, and the newspaper, as we know, is in trouble. Are you going to be able to make some sort of seamless transition to pure digital distribution in the future? Do you anticipate that that could happen?
GARRY TRUDEAU: It could happen. The open question is whether comic strip artists want to continue working in a revenue-free environment -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GARRY TRUDEAU: - because nobody can make a living at it. There’s one or two strips, Web comics, that are profitable because the merchandising associated with them is profitable. But just in terms of content, no one can make a living at it. And that may change. Somebody may figure out how to do that right. About 10 years ago, I partnered with an animation firm using a real-time motion capture technology that allowed us to build a wireframe of one of the characters, Duke, and it was 2000, so we ran him for president. And an actor in a motion capture suit would deliver his lines, and we placed him on a number of live news shows –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] – Charlie Rose and The Today Show and a number of other shows.
DUKE: You know why I'm running?
CHARLIE ROSE: Why?
DUKE: I want to shake things up in Washington, Charlie. I want to be the ferret in the pants of government. I want to bring dignity back to the Oval Office, or failing that, good hygiene and a lot of disinfectant.
GARRY TRUDEAU: I thought it was a rather successful experiment but it was, alas, a very expensive experiment and, like all the other Web animation companies of that era, it went south quickly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds like something that could come around again, and really soon.
GARRY TRUDEAU: I think so. I think so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was it Gerald Ford who – it was in, I think, in 1975 – told the Radio and Television Correspondents Association that there are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what’s going on in Washington, the electronic media, the print media and Doonesbury, and not necessarily in that order? [LAUGHS]
GARRY TRUDEAU: It was wonderful. Ford was threatened by nothing. Everything rolled off him. All the Chevy Chase stuff that was done on Saturday Night Live, he enjoyed it all. He was somebody who was very comfortable in his own skin, as was Reagan. Reagan used to have an annual dinner for cartoonists. Reagan said he read every one of the cartoons in The Washington Post every day. Well, there were three pages of comic strips. So he spent a significant part of his [LAUGHS] presidency reading the comics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] I think so.
GARRY TRUDEAU: He just didn't take anything personally, and Ford was like that as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about your depiction of presidents. Here you seem to become more abstract than at any other time.
GARRY TRUDEAU: For years I used an offstage voice. It was a voice coming up from the White House or out of a TV, and I'm actually back to that. But there was a period of time where I created icons as stand-ins for the presidents, and I'm –
[LAUGHTER] – for the life of me I can't remember how that occurred to me as a good idea. George Bush, of course, talked a great deal about the thousand points of light, and so he began life in the strip as a point of light.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George H.W. Bush.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Right. His vice-president, Dan Quayle, because of the early perception of him as being lightweight, to say the least, was depicted as a feather. Newt Gingrich was depicted as a bomb about to explode. And our most recent president was a Roman Centurion helmet -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George W. Bush.
GARRY TRUDEAU: - right – hovering over an asterisk, which was a constant reminder of the results of the 2000 election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And our current president is now an offstage voice again.
GARRY TRUDEAU: That’s for probably two reasons. One is, as I said, I just kind of got weary of the device, and the other is that no one was suggesting an icon that seemed to fit him. You know, he’s a fairly nuanced guy, and [LAUGHS] he’s problematic for satirists because he doesn't have salient features or temperament. You know, and I welcome any suggestions [LAUGHS]. The one that I'm sort of taken with that I heard a couple of days ago was a glass of water that’s half full.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] That’s not bad.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah, it’s not bad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was the most surprising thing you learned looking back over 40 years of Doonesbury?
GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I think that the strip, while it became fairly well-known for its politics and for all the controversy, that the strip was ultimately a story of a generation coming of age, and then it became a story of another generation coming of age. And that’s the great revelation of 40 years is that, you know what, that’s fun, and that’s why the younger characters have really kind of replaced the older characters in the day-to-day narrative.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike Doonesbury’s kid, Alex.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Right. She’s become the center of the strip, and not through any sort of conscious process on my part. It just kind of evolved that way. I think it’s because younger characters are caught up in becoming, and there are so many options. There’re so many things they could be, and so they're just more dynamic. We know how Mike is going to react to any given dramatic situation. We don't know Alex. Alex is an unguided missile. She could take off in any direction.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] She’s still trying to figure out who she’s meant to be. And so, those characters are just inherently more interesting to track.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because they're not set in their ways, so as new situations come up this set of characters gives you a lot more freedom.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since the parade never ceases to pass by, do you think that you'll - stop the strip?
GARRY TRUDEAU: I have a feeling that newspapers are going to perhaps make their exit before I would make that decision about myself. And I believe that probably one of those strips that – really, a comic strip, once it’s established, is the closest thing to tenure that a –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - popular culture offers, and I think I'll be one of those guys turning out the lights.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, my great pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Garry Trudeau is the creator of Doonesbury. Here’s a little more of the animated Duke.
CHARLIE ROSE: Some say each of these candidates, they are, in a sense too connected to someone else.
DUKE: Well –
CHARLIE ROSE: Here you are connected to Trudeau, and we know that he’s a shadowy character because he doesn't make any appearances on television.
DUKE: But –
CHARLIE ROSE: Therefore, he’s un-American.
DUKE: All right, let me tell you something.
CHARLIE ROSE: And if he’s un-American, why are you associated with him?
DUKE: Here, here’s the deal. I am a lot less of a cartoon character than a lot of those other candidates out there. I am a product - product of my handlers, too. I mean, I just think that if Garry Trudeau –
[SPEEDED UP AUDIO] I think that would sum it all up.
CHARLIE ROSE: [LAUGHING] Yes, I think so too.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Nerida Brownlee, and edited – by Brooke. To Bonnie Watt, thanks for all your help. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was John DeLore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs and our Grand Vizier. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.